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stereotype threat consequences vulnerable situations mechanisms reduce criticisms unresolved issues

Anxiety

Negative cognitions and dejection emotions

Lowered performance expectations

Physiological arousal

 

Reduced effort

Reduced self-control

Reduced working memory capacity

Reduced creativity, flexibility, and speed

Excess effort
 

Stereotype threat effects have been shown in many different situations involving a variety of stereotypes. Although stereotype threat effects appear to be robust, the specific mechanisms by which stereotype threat harms performance is still not entirely clear. This ambiguity likely reflects that fact that stereotype threat probably produces several different consequences, each of which can contribute to decreased performance (Steele, Spencer, & Aronson, 2002). Steele and Aronson (1995), for example, speculated that distraction, narrowed attention, anxiety, self-consciousness, withdrawal of effort, or even overeffort might all play a role. Research has provided support for the role of some of these factors, at least in some contexts.

It is quite likely that these factors work together to undermine performance under stereotype threat. Schmader, Johns, and Forbes (2008), in fact, have proposed that  performance decrements under stereotype threat result from three interconnected factors. All three factors negatively affect the efficiency of working memory, but they do so in different ways. One factor involves physiological stress that often arises following stereotype threat, a second factor is performance monitoring that occurs as individuals try to regulate their behavior under stereotype threat, and the third factor is attempted emotional regulation, as individuals try to control the affective responses that arise when threatened. Each factor can limit the quantity and effective allocation of cognitive resources that are necessary for optimal performance. Thus, affective and cognitive factors can work together to affect the quality of performance on tasks where maximal effort and focus are required.

In addition, it is also important to note that certain consequences are more likely in some contexts (and among some groups) than in others. As research progresses, it will be important to understand the specific mechanisms that might account for stereotype threat effects across different situations. 

Anxiety

Since the notion of stereotype threat was first proposed, it has been speculated that the emotional reactions it produces could directly interfere with performance. Steele (1997; Steele et al., 2002), for example, suggested that stereotype threat effects reflect increased anxiety about confirming a negative stereotype about one’s group. Despite the assumed centrality of emotions, the results have often been mixed (e.g., Beilock, Rydell, & McConnell, 2007; Gonzales et al., 2002; Harrison, Stevens, Monty, & Coakley, 2006; Keller & Dauenheimer, 2003; Stangor, Carr, & Kiang, 1998; Steele & Aronson, 1995; see Cadinu, Maass, Rosabianca, & Kiesner, 2005). Some studies show that self-reported anxiety does not mediate the relation between stereotype threat and performance (Spencer, Steele, & Quinn, 1999) while others demonstrate partial mediation (Osborne, 2001) and yet others have shown that performance decrements occur only in individuals who are highly anxious in the domain (Delgado & Prieto, 2008). Some of the inconsistencies in results may be due to the timing of the measurement of emotions (e.g., before versus after a test; Stone et al., 1999; Marx & Stapel, 2006) and the overreliance on verbal reports (Bosson, Haymovitz, & Pinel, 2004). Recent research that takes these factors into account suggests that stereotype threat can produce anxiety in stereotyped individuals prior to performance and frustration following the completion of the task (Marx & Stapel, 2006), and

Moreover, the presence of anxiety might depend on negative intergroup attitudes (Abrams, Eller, & Bryant, 2006) and the number of fellow group members present (Beaton, Tougas, Rinfret, Huard, & Delisle, 2007). A second complexity is that recent studies show that individuals under stereotype threat often try to regulate their emotions by actively reducing the anxiety that typically arises (Johns, Inzlicht, & Schmader, 2008). These attempts at emotional regulation ironically undermine the ability to perform well on tasks that demand a high degree of cognitive resources.

Negative cognitions and dejection

Stereotype threat can heighten stereotype–related thinking, leading to distraction and loss of motivation which, in turn, can negatively affect performance. Cadinu, Maass, Rosabianca, and Kiesner (2005) examined women’s math performance when gender differences in math problem solving were either highlighted or explicitly refuted. Performance not only was worse when gender stereotypes were reinforced but also was mediated by the number of domain-specific negative thoughts. That is, to the degree that women under stereotype threat thought about gender math stereotypes, their performance tended to be worse. Keller and Dauenheimer (2003) similarly showed that girls' reports of frustration, disappointment, and sadness accounted for poor performance in math under stereotype threat. In addition to producing anxiety and motivation loss, these negative cognitions and emotions might also diminish the cognitive resources available that are necessary for maximal performance or distract from the task at hand. Krendl, Richeson, Kelley, & Heatherton (2008) examined brain activity during a math exercise in the presence or absence of stereotype threat. Women in a control condition showed activation in brain regions associated with math learning during problem solving. However, women who were reminded of gender stereotypes in math showed heightened activation of the ventral anterior cingulate cortex (vACC) and no evidence of heightened levels of activation in the regions important for successful math performance. The vACC has been implicated in the processing of negative information

Lowered performance expectations

Related to negative thoughts and emotions are low expectations. If individuals expect to do poorly on a task, they might not be able to perform as well as when confidence is high. Stangor, Carr, and Kiang (1998) showed that activating gender stereotypes undermined performance expectations of women who were asked to estimate their performance on an upcoming task involving spatial perception. Similarly, Kray, Thompson, and Galinsky (2001) showed that subtle manipulations linking performance to gender stereotypes reduced performance expectations in women prior to a task involving negotiation. Kellow and Jones (2007) also showed lowered performance expectations among 9-th grade African-American students under stereotype threat, although performance deficits did not emerge. Cadinu and her colleagues (Cadinu, Maass, Frigerio, Impagliazzo, & Latinotti, 2003; see also Rosenthal, Crisp, & Suen, 2007) have provided the most direct evidence that lowered performance expectations can account for poorer performance under stereotype threat, especially among individuals highly identified with a content domain.    

Physiological arousal

Stereotype threat has been shown to affect physiological processes in several studies. Low heart rate variability (HRV), an indicator of mental load, appears to arise in conditions that produce stereotype threat. Croizet, Dépres, Gauzins, Huguet, Leyens, and Méot (2004) showed that undergraduate students under stereotype threat (specifically, psychology majors with a reputation of lower intelligence compared with science majors) performed more poorly on a task that was described as a “valid measure of general intellectual ability involved in mathematical and logical reasoning” than when it was described as “not diagnostic of any ability.” In addition, this poorer performance was associated with a decrease in HRV. Moreover, the changes in HRV mediated the relation between stereotype threat and performance. Thus, the increased mental workload under stereotype threat (and indicated by the decreased HRV) was responsible for the poor performance of those individuals susceptible to stereotype threat.

Other studies provide evidence of different physiological consequences of heightened arousal under stereotype threat. Osborne (2006, 2007) showed that students under stereotype threat showed higher skin conductance and blood pressure and lowered skin temperature, and Blascovich, Spencer, Quinn, and Steele (2001) found that the blood pressure of African American test takers under stereotype threat rose faster and remained higher relative to the blood pressure of White participants or non-threatened African American students. The African American participants under threat also performed poorly on the test, and increased physiological reactivity, like HRV, appeared to account for decreased intellectual performance. Vick, Seery, Blascovich, and Weisbuch (2008) showed that stereotype threat can produce physiological changes in groups that are both harmed by and benefit from stereotypical expectations. Women who were told that a math test was gender-biased exhibited responses typical under perceived threat (increased systemic vascular resistance that arises when task demands are believed to exceed available resources) but showed challenge responses (lower vascular resistance and increased cardiac output) when the test was supposedly gender-fair. For women, invoking gender stereotypes in mathematics made the test appear to be overwhelming given their abilities. Men, in contrast, showed challenge responses when the test supposedly favored their gender but threat responses when their presumed advantage was negated. Invoking their supposed superiority in math helped men to see their abilities as adequate to the task, but elimination of that advantage produced threat.

If physiological arousal occurs under stereotype threat, not all performance should be negatively affected. Specifically, the effects of arousal have been shown to depend on task difficulty, with arousal improving performance on simple tasks but decreasing performance on difficult tasks. O'Brien & Crandall (2003) tested whether arousal might account for stereotype threat effects by inducing stereotype threat in students prior to their completing a challenging or easy task.  Woman under stereotype threat performed better on an easy math test but worse on a difficult math test compared with women who were not exposed to stereotype threat. These results are consistent with the notion that arousal plays a central role in accounting for stereotype threat effects.

Reduced effort

Stereotype threat can lead individuals to reduce their effort, perhaps because of low expectations of performance or perhaps to self-handicap. Stone (2002; see also Schimel, Arndt, Banko, & Cook, 2004) provided evidence that individuals who experienced stereotype threat before performing a task related to golf engaged in less voluntary practice compared with individuals not operating under stereotype threat. Stereotype threat can reduce preparation and effort, and such "self-handicapping" can offer psychological protection by providing an a priori explanation for failure. Of course, underpreparation can also produce a self-fulfilling prophecy, producing failure under the very conditions where people fear doing poorly.  

Reduced self-control

Inzlicht, McKay, and Aronson (2006) showed that stereotype threat can diminish people's ability to direct their attention and behavior in purposive ways. In this study, Blacks who reported anxious expectations of encountering racial prejudice reported lower ability to regulate their academic behavior and subsequent experiments demonstrated that imposition of stereotype threat reduced their ability to effectively regulate attentional and behavioral resources. Similarly, Smith and White (2002) produced evidence that individuals who were exposed to stereotypes that were then nullified were better able to focus on the task than were individuals operating under stereotype threat. These findings suggest that coping with stereotype threat can reduce the ability to effectively regulate behavior in a variety of related and unrelated domains.

Reduced working memory capacity

Recent research suggests that stereotype threat can reduce working memory resources, undermining the ability to meet the information-processing requirements of complex intellectual tasks. Croizet et al. (2004) study used HRV, an indirect, physiological indicator of mental load, to show that stereotype threat can impose a cognitive burden. More direct evidence regarding the nature of this burden was provided by Schmader and Johns (2003; see also Osborne, 2006) who showed that working memory capacity (i.e., a short-term memory system involved in the controlling, regulating, and maintaining of information relevant to the immediate task) is affected by stereotype threat. Female students in the study performed a math task after being told either that "women are poorer at math than men" or were given no information about gender differences. Later, women’s performance and their working memory capacity (defined as the ability to recall words that had to be held in memory while participants solved math problems) were assessed. Women under stereotype threat showed poorer math performance and reduced working memory capacity compared with the control group. Differences in working memory capacity also mediated the link between stereotype threat and poorer math performance. Beilock, Rydell, and McConnell (2007; see also Rydell, McConnell, & Beilock, in press) extended this work by showing that stereotype threat appears to undermine phonological components of the working memory system involved in inner speech and thinking. Pressure-related thought and worries can reduce working memory resources, and tasks that require working memory resources (such as novel or poorly practiced skills) are most likely to reveal decrements under stereotype threat. Stereotype threat can increase worries and concerns, and these thoughts can reduce the working memory capacity necessary to effectively meet the information-processing requirements of a task. The effects of reduced working memory can be task, or even component, specific. Stone and McWhinnie (2008) showed, for example, that subtle stereotype threat seemed to affect only task components that rely on concentration and focused attention.  

Reduced creativity, flexibility, and speed

Some research suggests that stereotype threat can produce a prevention focus (Higgins, 1998), a regulatory state in which individuals become vigilance to prevent failure. Under such conditions, people tend to use risk-averse means, manifesting in higher performance accuracy and enhanced analytic thinking. People in a state of vigilance, however, tend to exhibit poorer performance on tasks that rely on creativity, openness, flexibility, and speed (Seibt & Förster, 2004). Since most tasks require both analytic thinking and a degree of openness and speed for successful completion, a prevention focus induced by stereotype threat can hinder performance on many tasks.

Excess effort or attention

Stereotype threat might actually increase effort and attention allocated to a task (e.g., Oswald & Harvey, 2000/2001). However, increased effort does not necessarily improve performance, and characteristics of the task can determine the effects of increased motivation or attention. For example, performance on highly proceduralized or well-practiced tasks can be harmed when people increase the attention or memory resources allocated to such tasks. Beilock, Jellison, Rydell, McConnell, & Carr (2006), for example, showed that stereotype threat harmed performance of expert golfers on a putting task, but these decrements were alleviated when individuals were under stereotype threat and attention was drawn away from the task. Jamieson & Harkins (2007), utilizing a task that has been tied to the regulation of working memory, provided more direct evidence that stereotype threat can increase motivation and effort. On a task of visual perception, individuals under stereotype threat were more susceptible to being distracted by an irrelevant stimulus but were also better able to overcome distraction. These data suggest that stereotype threat increased motivation to perform well.  

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